The McNeese Cowboys rolled into town to take on our Ags after a healthy ten day reprieve. Could the team shake off the rust from everyone's favorite annual finals break? Let's dive in.
The offense-first lineup stuck around, as Kennedy clearly liked what he saw during last week's game against Houston. Devonte Fitzgerald and Jamal Jones appear to have the starting nod until otherwise noted.
Full starting lineup: Caruso/Green/Jones/Fitzgerald/Roberson
Given that they had presumably spent the past ten days studying, our Ags came out of the block pretty darn effectively on offense... but that extended time buried in the books showed up in our early defensive effort, as some lost shooters and lazy close-outs kept McNeese around during the opening interval. To their credit, A&M did eventually wake up defensively, and their sustained patience on offense (12 assists on 16 buckets in the first half) slowly shifted the scoreline in the right direction.
The real early damage came when A&M closed the half on a 23-11 run, sparked by a couple of Alex Caruso threes (the offense looks SO much better when he's hitting), some very active hands on D (6 steals in the first half), and aggressive play in transition. It's also worth noting that a handful of guys did a good job locking down Kevin Hardy early (39 minutes; 1-5 FG / 6 points / 4 assists) who was one of the keys for the Cowboys offensively.
One other first half note: The inside-out game was working for really the first time all season (7/16 from downtown in the first half). In earlier games the outside looks have come strictly from drive/kick play, but today a few looks down low led directly to bombs from beyond the arc. To that end, Jamal Jones (34 minutes; 16 points / 5 rebounds / 5 assists / 4-9 3PT) continues to impress with his extended time.
A&M held McNeese at arm's length for the entirely of the second half, so I want to touch on a couple of lineup narratives. First, I think we're almost guaranteed to see late offense/defense substitutions at forward when we get to conference play. Antwan Space (23 minutes; 8 rebounds / 2 points / 2 TO) has proven himself a superior defender and tough rebounder, but his low post moves and decision-making on offense are very unconvincing. Meanwhile, Devonte Fitzgerald (22 minutes; 9 points / 1 rebound / 3-8 FG) can create his shot from 12-15 feet and has legitimate range from the wing, but the team's defensive rebounding takes a huge hit when he's on the floor. Perhaps someday the fine work done by our cloning department will allow us to roll with Antwante Spitzgerald at the 4, but until that day comes we're going to have to pick our poison.
Secondly, unit 1B (still not comfortable calling anyone the 2nd unit yet) had their worst passage of play of the season in the 2nd half. While there's no denying that the Aggies have depth, taking Caruso/Jones/Roberson off the floor at the same time is simply not an option. I won't get into the offensive sets run by our 1B's during that stretch, but suffice it to say that Chip Brown thought we got some good looks.
Game MVP: It was the Alex Caruso (29 minutes; 13 points / 7 assists / 4-5 FG) we've been wanting to see all season. When he hits open looks and distributes the ball like this, our offense jumps an entire notch.
After the debacle in Corpus Christi, Kennedy has done a nice job completely re-vamping the lineup / rotation and re-assigning a handful of roles. An 8-9 man rotation has clearly begun to develop, and I think everyone in that group has a handle on their specific role. Which is great, because when you really think about it that's what November and December are all about... mourning the slow death of college football season, cranking up the heater for the first time in 8 months, and getting to know your basketball team. If the Aggies can build on this with a convincing win against Oklahoma, Corpus will officially be in the rear view mirror and we'll be exactly where we want to be as conference play tips off.